By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will begin talking publicly next month about the results of a U.S. strategic review undertaken this year to guide the Pentagon as it cuts hundreds of billions of dollars in military spending.
Discussion of the strategy by Panetta and other senior Defense Department officials will come as the Pentagon is finalizing its budget submission to Congress for the 2013 fiscal year, usually released in February, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said.
"This is something that he thinks is extremely important to convey to the American people," Little told a briefing.
"In light of the hundreds of billions of dollars of cuts that we're confronting, he understands that we need to discuss with the American people what the U.S. military of the 21st century is going to do, at least in the near term, and what some of those trade-offs might need to be," Little said.
Little said the discussion of U.S. military strategy would inform the decision-making on the 2013 budget.
"The strategy comes first. That is the prism through which the secretary will make his decisions on final numbers in the budget," he said.
"Eventually, obviously we're going to have to talk about the budget itself and the particular decisions that are being considered," he added. "So I think you can expect that in January all of us will have a great deal of discussion on the budget."
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates launched the strategic review more than seven months ago after President Barack Obama asked him to cut $400 billion from projected Pentagon spending over 12 years.
Gates said cuts of that magnitude would require the Pentagon to make tough choices about the missions it could afford to continue. He initiated the review to help officials understand how to align spending with U.S. strategic interests and decide which missions could be abandoned at less risk.
Since then, Obama and Congress have enacted a law that requires $450 billion in cuts to projected defense spending over the next decade as part of efforts to get the country's $14 trillion debt under control.
They also created a congressional "super committee" to recommend another $1.2 trillion in cuts in federal spending, or face automatic across-the-board reductions that could slash another $600 billion from national security spending.
The panel failed to meet its deadline for recommending additional cuts, so across-the-board reductions will be required unless Congress takes action to avert them.
Obama has threatened to veto any attempt to exempt defense spending from further cuts unless the measure also addresses broader deficit issues.
The White House Office of Management and Budget recently issued guidance to the Defense Department for its 2013 budget plan. The guidance included initial spending cuts approved in August but not the second round of reductions.
The OMB's "pass-back" spending guidance for the Defense Department sets a base budget of $523 billion for 2013, little changed from the expected final spending figure for 2012, which is still being finalized in Congress.
Guidance for war funding was set at $82 billion, some $35 billion less than projections for 2012 due to the end of U.S. operations in Iraq at the end of 2011.
The OMB guidance summary, a copy of which was obtained by the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, projected a 2014 base budget of $553 billion for 2014, $545 billion in 2015,$555 billion in 2016 and $567 billion in 2017.
The projected spending through 2017 is nearly $270 billion less than last year's projections. The remainder of the $450 billion in cuts would come in subsequent years. The main cuts would come in 2013, after which the defense budget would resume its climb, slipping in 2015, but rising in 2016 and 2017.
Panetta has said repeatedly the initial round of cuts would be manageable but difficult, while the second round would be devastating for the Pentagon.
But Gordon Adams, a professor of foreign policy at American University and former OMB official, said the pass-back budget showed the cuts could be accomplished with little difficulty.
"The secretary managed to take $260 billion out of the five-year plan and still provide for growth, including some that appears to be real growth in the out years," Adams said.
"All of which reinforces my view ... that getting $450 billion out of a 10-year plan is a walk in the park," he said.
(Editing by Todd Eastham)